Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Films of Val Lewton - Part Five

I Walked With A Zombie - continued (part three)

The rest of the film is essentially a working out of the consequences of this visit, which is really also the catalyst to finish the story which had been frozen in an uneasy stasis for some time. The completion of Sir Lancelot’s calypso (‘now you must see that my song is sung’) as well as a working out of historical forces long contained, but whose pressure has steadily built up. Back at the Holland Fort, Paul is there to meet Betsy and there is a recommencement of the romantic piano music which reminds us of the evening of their brief moment of connection. Paul tells her that he has no desire to have Jessica back, but that it’s like her to see things in such simple and goodhearted way; as near to a declaration of love as he can muster. This moment of elliptical tenderness is inevitably cut short once more by the intervention of the drums.

The following morning, Alma lets slip to Betsy that the voodoo sword priest is ‘making trouble’. As Paul puts it, the islanders want her back for their ‘ritual tests’. They have a doll dressed like Jessica at the ready. The island commissioner is also closing in on the Hollands, suggesting Jessica be sent to an asylum for her own safety. Carrefour is meanwhile given the doll by the sabreman and instructed to bring her back. His big dumb eyes are wide with programmed need. The sound of the drums now forms a direct connection between hounfort and Fort Holland.

Paul meanwhile confesses to Betsy that he has tried to destroy her feeling of enchantment, from the moment on the boat taking them to the island onwards. ‘I was trying to hurt you’, he confesses. He has seen that love can be ‘fine and sweet’ and fears destroying it, and thus wants her to leave ‘so long as I have this fear of myself’. This again leaves a huge gulf of ambiguity. Is his perverse attitude towards love and feelings of attachment a result of his having been hurt by Jessica and Wes, or was the presence of such a twisted outlook what caused them to turn to each other in the first place? The fact that Lewton tended to cast Tom Conway in the role of characters attracted towards the darker side of love (notably his Dr Judds in Cat People and The Seventh Victim) merely adds to the uncertainty.

Betsy sleeps in Jessica’s room this night, keeping guard underneath Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead. Once again, Lewton and Tourneur create a beautiful sense of a night infused with the atmospheres of the uncanny and otherworldly. A curtain sweeps against the harp, the wind reaching in to play a chord as it had blown hollow notes through the occarina earlier. The dry, hot wind is, as noted earlier, like an embodiment of emotions and buried histories which remain unspoken by human voice. Its playing of chords on these different instruments from separate cultures also serves to link the interiors of Fort Holland with the world of the islanders. The shadow of Carrefour is cast against Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead painting in a wonderful poetic image (it makes a great still) which once again serves to link separate cultures, as well as highlighting their different approaches to death. Carrefour’s shadow blends with those cast by the curlicued ironwork of the gates. This furthers the idea of the play of shadows being an intimation of a world beyond, a parallel reality tenuously glimpsed through its reflections. Jessica will later pass through the real gates which cast these shadows to walk to her death.

When Betsy goes out into the garden to investigate, and the nocturnal mood is created by the silence and the light on the paving stones leading to the deep blackness of the entrance to the tower, which is open. Night creatures look on dispassionately; an owl and a frog, which plops into the pond. Carrefour appears from the tower, his shuffling feet sounding loud in the deathly quiet. As Paul appears, he stumbles towards him, arms held out in an almost imploring manner. It takes Mrs Rand’s appearance to dismiss him by commandingly addressing him by his true name. A close up of his face reveals a look of blankly despairing hunger before he disappears into the night.

The next morning brings the news that the Commissioner is to instigate a legal investigation. This forces the hand of events and causes Mrs Rand to make her confession. Her statement that Jessica is dead and that she was responsible is an admission that for her voodoo is more than a set of primitive beliefs which she employs to achieve her benevolent ends. If you take on the integuments of a culture and religion, you cannot remain wholly apart from it; it will affect your way of being in the world. Mrs Rand claims that she asked the houngun to make Jessica a zombie because she ‘was beautiful and used that to tear her family apart’. Again, we get a highly coloured and subjective view of Jessica as a femme fatale, but from a mother who will obviously tend to favour her sons. Besides, her moral authority and objectivity is somewhat undermined by her admission that her unconscious was so filled with hate for her that it prompted this murderous impulse. Her mendacity in using the power of the houngun for her own purposes, no matter how well intended, also muddy the waters of truth and further serves to indicate the complex moral universe which Lewton depicts.

Back at the hounfort, the sabreman draws Jessica’s doll towards him on a thread, and Jessica correspondingly moves outwards towards the gates. Again, the reality of the supernatural seems to be confirmed. Wesley is on the outside of the gates which bar Jessica’s way and seems lost in a zombie-like reverie himself. ‘They have charms that can draw a man half way around the world’ he intones, clearly now a believer. Paul calls it ‘cheap mummery’, but as the drums stop and Jessica can once more be controlled, his words seem to have been instantly mocked. But he will not depart from his cold rationality, his remark that ‘I saw nothing that would convince a sober man’ acting as denial and putdown in one.

After another use of the Saint Sebastian statue as punctuation and signifier of sorrow and suffering, Betsy comes into the garden to comfort a disconsolate Wesley, who tries to convince her to commit euthanasia on Jessica. She refuses, because ‘her heart beats, she breathes’. She doesn’t go as far as to say ‘she lives’. A shadowy screenwipe (a blackout?) reveals Wes alone at a table. The drums start up again and Jessica comes out of her tower and drifts over to the gate. Wes opens it for her and deliberately walks over to the statue of Saint Sebastian, pulling one of the arrows out of it with some effort. We cut to the sabreman skewering Jessica’s doll, before Wes is seen rising from Jessica’s corpse on the sands, arrow in hand. It is as if his actions have been directed, predetermined. He seems as much a puppeteered figure as Jessica. He carries her out into the sea as Carrefour approaches, and the pitiful zombie is left with open arms empty, hunger unfulfilled, outlined against the horizon and then the sand as the waves crash against his bare feet. His story is unresolved. The closing of the circle which his seeking of Jessica represented has not been completed. The failure seems to be as much on the part on the voodoo priest as on Wesley. The symbolism of the use of Ti-Misery/Saint Sebastian’s arrow to kill Jessica seems to be not so much to put an end to the sorrow as to mark its continuation. After all, there are arrows left, and the statue still gushes its watery tears.

As the fishermen bear the corpses of Jessica and Wesley into the courtyard in a very religiose procession, a solemn preacher’s voice intones a summation of their fall in terms of old testamentary moral absolutism; ‘she was dead in the selfishness of her spirit - the man followed her – her steps led him down to evil’. But what we have seen leads us to reject such a crassly spelled out interpretation, which stands as an ironically inappropriate summation. As the unknown preacher utters his final prayer, asking the lord to ‘forgive them who are dead and give peace and happiness to the living’, we focus on Betsy and Paul embracing. But the camera then zooms in on the statue of Saint Sebastian, and this is the image with which we are left. It’s body is still pierced by two arrows (Betsy and Paul?) and the water still pours over it. The water which reminds us that this was the figurehead at the prow of a slave ship. Sorrow and unhappiness still prevail.

This takes us back to the beginning. Unconnected as the opening scene of Betsy walking with Carrefour seemed at the time, in retrospect it seems to offer some kind of resolution which offers a counterbalance to the pessimism of the actual ending. The ease with which Betsy strolls along the tideline with this shambling giant seems to suggest a genuine engagement with island culture. It is an engagement which it was hinted that Jessica also enjoyed and to which Mrs Rand had also partly committed herself. But Mrs Rand had maintained a distance measured by her assumed superiority. Betsy came to the island essentially as another household servant, with no moral agenda for ‘saving’ the souls of the islanders as Mrs Rand, the wife of a missionary, had done. Betsy’s openness and lack of social pretensions or ambitions make her a figure who offers the possibility of rapprochement, of reconciliation on both a personal and historical level. She is another of Lewton’s strong female figures, who both act decisively for their own part, and galvanise the male characters to rise from their melancholic stupour. It is perhaps significant that she comes from the neutral country of Canada, rather than from the Old or New Worlds of England or America, both of whom are seen as tainted with the blood of colonialists using slave labour. In a sense, her romantic viewpoint, delusionary though it may often be, also marks a determination to see the world in the best light possible. In so far as we set about creating the ideal worlds which our imaginations envisage, this is preferable to the fatalistic acceptance of decay and decadence (in the style of French writers like Baudelaire) which Paul has adopted, and which excuses him from the need to act . He has shown signs of being drawn into the orbit of Betsy’s world-view, of resigning his need to control all the elements of his world. In the beginning lies the ending, then, and the hope for a closing of the circular retelling of a sorrowful story.

next...The Leopard Man

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